5 MVP Candidates Who Are Getting Paid Like Scrubs
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It is certainly a bit of a misnomer to use the term "underpaid" when discussing professional baseball players. With a new league minimum salary of $480,000, even the sixth outfielder and the lefty specialist make more annually than the President of the United States. Make no mistake—if you're talented enough to catch the eye of a big league team, you have the chance to become better paid than the majority of Americans. The league minimum is nothing to sneeze at, but the league average is a tick above $3 million—a paycheck most of us would be hard-pressed to complain about.
Of course, all players—and all player contracts—are not created equal. They are frequently based on past performance and hope to approximate future performance, an inexact science at best. It is not uncommon for aging players to perform significantly worse in the final years of their contracts than they did when they first signed it, and every now and then you get players whose numbers take drastic and unexplained dips soon after signing mega-deals.
These so-called "albatross contracts" haunt the dreams of every major league GM, who want nothing less than to sign the next Dan Uggla ($13 million, batting .210), Bobby Abreu ($9 million, recently designated for assignment by the Dodgers) or Vernon Wells ($21 million for a whopping -.4 WAR per Fangraphs).
But on the other end of the spectrum are players who are playing well above their pay grade. These are mainly younger players who have yet to become arbitration eligible, but have already started to contribute in big ways to their big league club. For some of these players, the right break for their team in the playoff race could mean a big boost in their MVP candidacy (as we have seen in recent years, MVP voters very much factor team success into the spirit of the award).
We can quantify the extent to which a player outperforms their paycheck by calculating their cost vs. performance score—the average MLB salary divided by the player's salary, multiplied by the player's WAR.
5. Mark Trumbo
Trumbo going deep for cheap
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There has been a lot said and written about Mike Trout, and rightfully so. He is an electrifying player to watch, and has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation talent. His numbers are absurd—an MLB best 6.7 WAR in only 396 plate appearances is a good way to sum it up quickly. If sustained, his numbers are potentially MVP-worthy, but that's no small "if." His staggering .346/.407/.597 line has been buoyed by a .397 BABIP, and let's remember that these are, after all, his first 396 plate appearances in the majors. As long as he keeps doing Mike Trout things, however, you won't find much love talking up anyone else as the AL MVP candidate.
But let's talk about Mark Trumbo for a second. Trumbo is only the second most electrifying player on his team—but when you play with a potential 21-year-old MVP and the one of the best hitters in baseball history, being second best isn't such a bad thing. Trumbo has been tremendous this year, improving his numbers across the board from a solid rookie campaign in 2011. He is hitting .290 with an OPS of .908.
During April, when Trout was still in the minors and Pujols was slumping, it was Trumbo, hitting .304 in April and .367 in May, who kept the Angels within striking distance while his teammates figured out their struggles.
Trumbo is just 25 and about to enter his prime. If he continues to put up MVP-caliber numbers, he will become as well paid as the biggest stars in the league. Currently, however, Trumbo is making only $500,000 for his prowess at the plate, good for a cost vs. performance (CVP) score of 3.07. The Angels have paid only $18,000 for each of Trumbo's 28 home runs, versus the $3.5 million they have paid Vernon Wells for each of his. It's safe to say that locking up Trumbo will be one of the Angels' top offseason priorities.
4. Buster Posey
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The 25-year-old Posey has been the most important player on a sneaky-good 2012 Giants squad, both by hitting the cover off the ball and by catching one of the most dynamic pitching rotations in the majors. His 4.2 WAR speaks to Posey's value, but does not truly capture what his passion and enthusiasm for the game does to energize his team. This energy will be invaluable down the stretch as they face a tough playoff race, and it is no coincidence that a virtually identical Giants team faded from the playoff race last year after Posey's season-ending injury in the middle of the season.
Though Melky Cabrera's name will undoubtedly come up in the MVP voting this year, no one does more for this team on a daily basis than Posey.
Posey's 2012 line of .327/.394/.528 may be due in part to his above average BABIP (.354), but he will likely see less regression than other players hitting at that clip. His current BABIP is only .026 points higher than his career average of .328—though the league average is significantly lower, some batters command higher BABIPs depending on the quality of contact they make with the ball. His line drive rate of 22.7 percent is a career high, but his career average of 19.7 percent is still above average and speaks to his ability to maintain his above average BABIP.
Posey is on pace to set career highs in nearly every offensive category, but he is making only $615,000—good for a CVP score of 3.20, better than David Freese, Jason Heyward, and Giancarlo Stanton. Given his consistently potent bat and the value he adds behind the plate, it won't be long before San Fran makes their move and signs Posey to the lucrative contract he has earned.
3. Austin Jackson
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Quick, who has the highest WAR on the Detroit Tigers this year? No, it's not Justin Verlander ($20 million), Miguel Cabrera ($21 million) or Prince Fielder ($23 million). It's 25-year-old Austin Jackson, who has hit, run and fielded his way to 4.7 WAR, all while making a meager $500,000.
Jackson broke through as a rookie in 2010, hitting .293 and stealing 27 bases. A disappointing sophomore campaign in 2011 set the stage for 2012, as Jackson shot out of the gate as one of the hottest hitters in baseball, making Tigers fans instantly regret regretting the Curtis Granderson trade. Though his pace has slowed, his numbers have remained impressive as Jackson hasn't hit below .300 for any month besides his .284 April. Even more encouraging, Jackson has found his power in 2012, bringing his slugging percentage up to .518 from the .400 and .374 he posted in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Like Posey, there are concerns that Jackson is due for heavy regression given his absurd .405 BABIP in 2012. However, Jackson has also been able to maintain an exceptionally high BABIP thus far in his career, to the tune of .396 in 675 plate appearances in 2010, and a career BABIP of .377. A line-drive rate north of 20 percent for his career is a major reason for these numbers.
Jackson's relatively modest paycheck, combined with his offensive torrent, earns him a CVP score of 3.65. Jackson will surely sign a big contract when he enters arbitration this fall, though it is unclear whether the Tigers will be able to afford a fourth superstar with Verlander, Miggy C and Big Prince (and their aforementioned mega-contracts) on the books through 2014, 2015 and 2020 (respectively).
2. Josh Reddick
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Josh Reddick has been at the heart of the Oakland A's surprising success this season, with a WAR (4.1) equal to that of Yoenis Cespedes (1.5), Jonny Gomes (1.5) and Seth Smith (1.1) combined.
Until Red Sox fans get to see Andrew Bailey in action, Reddick's name will bring cringes to faces all over Red Sox Nation as they imagine what his presence could have added to a disappointing and inconsistent 2012 lineup. Although Reddick's batting average has fallen from .280 in 2011 to .261 thus far in 2012, his OBP has remained steady (due to a higher walk rate) and his slugging percentage has shot up from a solid .457 to a stellar .516. Reddick has clearly found his power this year, whacking 24 home runs in just 104 games.
Reddick is paid only $485,000, making his CVP score 4.35—second highest in baseball. Reddick, of course, plays for a famously and perennially low-budget Oakland team, where no one on their roster earns more than $6.5 million (by comparison, the Yankees have 12 players making $7 million or more—in some cases, much, much more—in 2012). However, his singular contributions have kept Oakland in the playoff race and make them a sneaky dark horse if they manage to grab a wild card spot. Recall their four-game sweep of the Yankees during their red hot July, a true David and Goliath match up during which the 25-year-old Reddick took center stage.
If Oakland can pull of the improbable (but certainly not impossible), Reddick and his "minimum wage" salary could find themselves in the thick of MVP talks.
1. Andrew McCutchen
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Andrew McCutchen's 2012 numbers speak for themselves: .368/.429/.627, 23 home runs, 14 stolen bases and an NL-leading 5.9 WAR. His slash line will almost certainly see some regression before the season is out, as it has been buoyed by an insane .418 BABIP. Still, the 25-year-old speedster's breakout season is no fluke, and has been three years in the making: In 2009 and 2010, McCutchen had the average (.286) but not the power. In 2011, he found his power (23 home runs) but saw his average drop to .259. Now, with 53 games left in the season and the Pirates very much in the playoff hunt (!), McCutchen already has 23 dingers and doesn't look like he's going to slow down anytime soon.
Since the All-Star break, McCutchen has separated himself from the rest of the MVP field, which includes superstars like Joey Votto and Matt Holliday, with his consistently excellent brand of enthusiastic baseball. McCutchen has improbably hit progressively better in every month this season, going from .302 (April) to .360 (May) to .370 (June). Hard to go up from there, right? Try an absolutely blistering line of .446/.510/.739 in the month of July. You read that right—when Andrew McCutchen came to the plate in July, he made it on base more often than he got out. Unfortunately, he is currently mired in an early August slump, batting only .286 with a mere 1.016 OPS through four games.
No one in baseball is more important to his team's success than McCutchen (Trout has more WAR, but McCutchen doesn't have Trumbo and Pujols to pick up the slack on his off-days), and even if his Pirates miss the playoffs, McCutchen will be considered a heavy favorite to win the NL MVP.
And for all this, how much has McCutchen earned this year? Just $500,000, giving him a MLB-high 5.47 CVP score. He is already signed to a long-term contract with the Bucs, and at this point his 5-year $49 million contract looks like a steal, especially given the backloaded nature of the contract. The Pirates will pay McCutchen only $4.5 million next year and $7.25 in 2014, meaning his peak years will be had at a price that might keep him on the list of most underpaid players in baseball.